Jeff Nichols is very quickly solidifying himself as a distinct and essential American voice. The 37-year old Arkansas native blends the mystic nostalgia of Steven Spielberg’s great wonders with the romanticized bayou lyricism of a Mark Twain novel. The result is often staggering, the heavy, heady crossroads of lock stock ultra violence and meaningfully sentimental morality plays. In 2012, Nichols’ snaggle-toothed fable Mud sounded the starting gun for the McConaissance, just as he basically introduced the world to Michael Shannon as a leading man in 2011’s Take Shelter. More than just a emcee for introducing (or reintroducing) us to new or reinvigorated talent, Nichols has emerged as a bold writer/director willing to take big risks and reap big rewards and Midnight Special, a work of great wonder and beauty, is blinding evidence of this fact.
Midnight Special reunites Nichols and Shannon, who we’ll see working in concert for the fourth time later this year for Loving, the dramatic account of an imprisoned interracial couple in 1950s Virginia. The film starts full guns blazing – or as the French would put it, mise-en-scène – with two concerned, strapped men unpinning cardboard from the windows of a cheap motel. The men are Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton). From the boxy TV set lumbering in the background, we’re privy to reports of a missing child. 8-year-old Alton (Jaeden Liebeher) sits on the floor under a white sheet, unmoved by the sensationalist news cycle featuring his likeness.Alton wears swim goggles and thumbs through a comic book by flashlight. Like vampires, safe under cover of night, they load into a classic American muscle car. Roy dials off the headlights, dons night-vision goggles. They barrel down a vast stretch of abandoned country road. Looking up for his comic, Alton asks about kryptonite. Lucas explains that even Superman has a weakness and that weakness is kryptonite. Shortly after, they cause a collision and Roy ends up plugging a witness, a state trooper, with a pair of slugs. Alton is too important to risk, they justify to themselves and speed on.
If you break Midnight Special down to it studs, the science-fiction chase thriller is simple: a family must abscond with their “gifted” child out from the clutches of callous doomsday cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), who’s sent lackey Doak (Bill Camp) to retrieve the boy by any means necessary, and away from the teeming, infinite resources of the federal government understandably unnerved by Alton’s ability to pick up sensitive government information like a living radio receiver. Their efforts are led by curious homeland security agent Sevier (Adam Driver), who though confidently performed by Driver becomes a rough fitting, convenient piece for some of the film’s narrative machinations. On the one hand, Alton’s mystical powers prove increasingly opportune but it’s Driver’s Sevier who’s the real deus ex machina.
In some capacity, this is the film’s kryptonite: key decisions are made in light of epiphanies that we’re never entirely privy to. Epiphanies brought on by some ethereal connection characters form with Alton when staring into his blinding blue eyes lead to tectonic narrative shifts. Likewise, the cult aspect drops out of the film’s third act like a bum transmission, leaving only some of the less nuanced articles in play. In order to enjoy Midnight Special to its fullest, one must give themselves over to its nigh hedonistic peculiarities; the film lives and dies by its enrapt moodiness, occasionally leaving you wanting for some key story elements and making for those who would pick at its plot points welcome to a small trove of narrative frays. The fact that Nichols doesn’t feel the need to reveal the wizard behind the curtain, to over-explain this looming plain of alternative reality that he’s conjured up is part and parcel of what makes Midnight Special wowing. The not knowing thereby is much more interesting than knowing; the magic trick is much more beautiful than the handsy deception behind it.
Also working in its favor is the fact that Nichols taps into a tidal wave of stakes from go, made palpable by what Roy and Lucas and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) are willing to risk to ensure Alton’s safety. A share of back stories are left notably hazy but Nichols is determined to focus on the present rather than the past, offering tender, humanized moments that go a long way towards filling in the script’s fissures. Roy’s unwavering concern for Alton materializes in the way he looks at, holds the superpowered boy. In order to accomplish the unspoken emotion bubbling within it, Midnight Special depends on depth of character and from top to bottom, the performances are immaculate. Shannon is unsurprisingly the stand out, offering a pained, universal hymnal on fatherhood and the challenges of letting go but young newcomer Lieberher (St. Vincent) also offers a peculiar vision of clairvoyance and calm well beyond his years.
Those willing to let themselves be swept up with the magical realism of Midnight Special will find an adult-approved spirit journey into the ethereal realm. Reminiscent of Spielberg’s seminal E.T. in more ways than one, this thinking man’s vision quest is a headstrong case of big ideas not encumbered by studio tinkering. For those who’ve not yet overcome the insulting disappointment of Brad Bird’s awful Tomorrowland, Midnight Special is what I wanted and expected from that should-have-been-so-much-more film; a heady mystery and small miracle, though not without its flaws.
CONCLUSION: Jeff Nichols’ ‘Midnight Special’ feels like some recently discovered 80’s B-movie. Purring with metaphysical musings and its own cryptic internal mythology, the sci-fi chase movie asks more questions than it answers but razor wire tension and silky smooth performances from the likes of Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton allow it to ascend its nominal genre trappings.
*Review reprinted from our 2016 SXSW Coverage.